Northern Ireland Protocol: Boris Johnson and co are putting peace process in peril and risking a trade war with EU – Christine Jardine MP

It was one of those moments when you know that you are always going to remember where you were when you heard the news.

I was in a caravan in the Dordogne. It was August 1994 and the ridiculously expensive radio we had bought to keep us in touch while ‘glamping’ across Europe delivered news I had never even hoped to hear, in the most matter of fact of tones.

The IRA, the BBC told us, had declared a ceasefire with “a complete cessation of military operations” from midnight that night.

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My husband and I sat in stunned silence just looking at each other before our reporters’ instincts kicked in and we left in search of a pub with a TV or an English language newspaper we could buy.

Of course we didn’t know then that there would be more disappointments along the way and that even the historic Good Friday Agreement would not put an immediate end to the bloodshed.

But in that moment it seemed, for the first time, that there might be a bright, positive peaceful future for the people of Northern Ireland. For everyone touched by the euphemistically named ‘Troubles’.

Thirty years later, they have reached a point where they have, to a previously unimaginable extent, put the bitterness and pain of those years behind them.

So to be faced with the realisation that it might all be undermined by an unnecessary dispute born of the Brexit debacle and government intransigence is astonishing.

Loyalists clash with police during a protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol in Belfast in November (Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

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It is, for me, unfathomable, that any person who lived through the torment and terror of the Troubles, even as a child in the distant, leafy suburbs of the Home Counties could countenance, for an instant, putting it all at risk.

And yet here we are. May 2022 and our government is talking about ripping up the Northern Ireland Protocol, which it agreed with the EU just two years ago.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that a government, under fire, struggling to get on top of a cost-of-living crisis, is using the most socially and politically fragile area of the UK as a football.

More than that, it often feels as if the Conservatives are playing unacceptable games, not just with the people of Northern Ireland but with the Union.

For the past 18 months, the UK Government has chosen grandstanding instead of problem solving.

The Conservatives chose to put a border down the Irish Sea but now they cannot seem to find a way to make it work or to reach agreements which would make it easier to get goods from one part of the UK to another.

Like a veterinary agreement for livestock. There is one on the table but our government rejects it. It seems they would rather antagonise than agree.

And it is not as if any of this should have come as a surprise. Warnings were sounded before the 2016 referendum of what a departure from the EU could mean for Northern Ireland.

Throughout the two years of stalemate, arguments and late-night voting in parliament from 2017 to 2019, the implications for the Good Friday Agreement were frequently aired, if never properly addressed.

Since then a combination of Brexit fundamentalism and government failure has brought us to the position where there is growing political unrest in Northern Ireland and no agreement to allow the executive there to sit.

Under the Good Friday Agreement power-sharing arrangement, the largest unionist and nationalist parties must share the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's post, while the other ministerial positions are allocated based on how many seats parties have in the assembly.

On Friday of last week, the leader of the Democratic Unionists, Jeffrey Donaldson, confirmed that his party will not accept the election of a speaker to that Assembly, appearing to put a resumption of power-sharing out of reach.

Sinn Féin, which emerged as the largest party in Stormont for the first time after last week’s elections, called that announcement “shameful”.

And still the UK Government seems determined to pursue the argument rather than a solution.

In one of her most recent pronouncements on the Protocol, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss declared that “if the EU would not show the requisite flexibility to help solve those issues, then as a responsible government we would have no choice but to act”.

Attorney General Suella Braverman, on Question Time, also claimed that the need for action over the protocol was "painfully, apparently necessary".

If the Conservatives persist with their ideological approach, it could result in a trade war with our closest allies in the EU.

In the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, and when we need to work together to support Ukraine and oppose Russian aggression in Europe, it is hard to imagine a more self-damaging approach.

Worst of all, any unilateral action by the UK Government on the Protocol would only increase instability in Northern Ireland.

No-one who has seen the pictures of rioting and firebombs from Northern Ireland’s cities over the past few months can be in any doubt that we must all do what we can to preserve it.

For most of my young life, I lived in a country where we were constantly aware of the terrorist threat and on the look-out for abandoned bags or suspicious packages. So many images of town and city centres destroyed and lives claimed by bombs or shootings are seared on our collective memory.

Both sides have achieved so much and come so far. Overcome the bitterness and pain of grief.

This government must recognise what needs to be done now to protect that achievement. Get round the table, find a political solution with the EU.

The people of Northern Ireland, indeed all of us, deserve no less.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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